Death of a President
British director Gabriel Range makes the everyday chilling with his new Death of a President, a fictional docudrama about the assassination of President George W. Bush. Merging actual news footage with CGI effects and dramatized interviews and re-creations, Range knits together a movie that feels like journalism, telling the story leading up to Bushís Oct. 19, 2007, assassination in Chicago and the ensuing investigation to find his killer. Range isnít aiming for the shock of imagining the murder of a sitting head of state--heís more concerned with extrapolating the current political climate and predicting how much worse Patriot Act paranoia could get.
Told in seamless interviews with imaginary Secret Service agents, speechwriters, investigators, and eventual suspects, Death follows Bushís visit to Chicago to speak to the a local economics society and, in the process, include a few words about North Koreaís escalating nuclear capabilities. Anti-war protesters line the motorcadeís inner-loop route to the hotel where the president is to appear, and the protestersí volatility causes the Chicago police department to respond with riot gear-clad officers ready to quell any situation.
Already Rangeís sensibly simple choices are stirring an uneasy vertigo in the stomach. It doesnít take any imagination to suspect danger lurks around his fictional eventsí corners--even people who werenít alive know of the disastrous August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and, well, didnít North Korea test a bomb just last week? By the time Range gets to his Bush working a rope line before he leaves when shots ring out and Secret Service agents explode into action and screaming people hit the ground, footage from every modern American political shooting--from Abraham Zapruderís home movie to John Hinckley Jr.ís March 30, 1981, attempt on President Reagan--flashes through the brain, and you realize itís unsettling because it feels like what we call the real. Soon, Death has one of its characters utter nine of the more horrifying words in the English language right now: 44th president of the United States Dick Cheney.
The power of Rangeís Death comes from such queasy proximity, its ability to tap into the dread of the familiar. And while its post-assassination story line isnít as tightly composed as its first half--the FBI investigation eventually settles on a Chicago-based Syrian Muslim, a militant protester, and an Iraq war veteran--its slowly spun web of paranoia feels all too practical. In a few momentary coverage shots, Rangeís camera catches views of Chicagoís buildings, neighborhoods, and highways, perfectly innocuous save the CGI-added signs and LED-crawls about heightened alerts that remind of constant surveillance. Death of a President isnít great--but its few casually effective what-ifs more than tighten the sphincter.